Real Lessons from a Fake SEAL

A SEAL trident is the military equivalent of a diploma from Yale and a tap from Skull and Bones. It should come as no surprise that the occasional mediocrity claims, falsely, to have earned one. That some of these fakes happen to be clergymen also sounds like a fair enough proposition — priests and preachers are supposed to have a gift for gab; who can predict where that gabbing might lead?

But when a Christian Bible Fellowship pastor named Jim Moats told his tale of stolen valor — which, Lookout’s Liz Goodwin observes, he seems to have raided from Steven Segal’s Under Siege — a retired SEAL named Don Shipley made a comment that did shock me:

“We deal with these guys all the time, especially the clergy. It’s amazing how many of the clergy are involved in those lies to build that flock up,”

It makes a depressing kind of sense: where religion is concerned, it’s a buyers’ market, which means that, for sellers, it’s a mug’s game. Anyone who wants to stay in business has got to seize every advantage, and failing that, to invent a few. I don’t know who Reverend Moats considers his chief competitor, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the guy’s indulged in some strategic misrepresentation of his own. Maybe he wears someone else’s Special Forces tab, or preaches about how he used to party with John Holmes and Eddie Nash.

This is one reason I’m glad to be Catholic. People like to complain about our clerical culture — how priests can only gain preferment by polishing the apples of the higher-ups, and by suppressing any idea that smacks of originality. Bully for us, I say. I’ll take a bland, timid careerist over a mendacious self-starter any day. Yes, both we and our competition have plenty in between, but as a worst-case scenario, I tend to favor ours over theirs.

One of these days, I’ll have to write a book titled Everything I Needed to Know About Life I Learned in the Subprime Mortgage Industry. Actually, it’s truer to say that my time in subprime taught me everything I needed to know about the flummery involved in self-promotion. The people who prospered most were those who lied about themselves so naturally, I sometimes wondered whether they remembered they were lying.

One guy in particular deserves the “What is Truth?” trophy. Though he’d moved to Arizona from Mexico only several years earlier, he spoke English not just well, not just perfectly, but so closely in line with prevailing aesthetic norms that he sounded less like an individual than a composite of various anchormen. (At times, I deteched a faintly camp lilt, but I suspect this resulted from his having lived for a time on Cozumel.) A Colombian colleague once told me — in an awed whisper, as though dodging a hex — that he had taught himself to speak Spanish with an American accent.

His name was Raul; he went by Ron. His hair was dark; he frosted his tips. Initially, his commission checks were small; he found someone to sell him swag Armani at a 75% markdown. He had no credit; he leased a Beamer. To re-invent himself in the image of the successful American businessman, he spared no plume of smoke, no mirror.

To the rest of us — poor, hungry, ungifted slobs striving for a slot in the middle class — he was a regular Pied Piper. Before long, everyone was leasing a luxury car and wearing suits that had, providentially, fallen off the backs of trucks. He even changed our job titles.

“I don’t like the sound of ‘loan officer,’” he told the owner of the brokerage. “It sounds so, you know, mercenary. How about ‘mortgage consultant’?” As a counter-suggestion, I offered “mortgage artist,” but of course nobody listened.

Now, granted, there are some priests with huckters’ instincts, and even some who have lied about their military service. Frank Weathers busted Fr. Tom Euteneur for posing as a former Marine, whereas in fact he’d been no more than an officer candidate. But their rewards amount to chump change. You’re not going to find them in a chancery, much less a dicastery. My own bishop, the Most Reverend Thomas James Olmsted, has no discernable personality, and I admire him greatly for it.

One thing, though: isn’t it too bad no Navy SEAL has been caught inventing a clerical past? “Yup, graduated Pontifical College Josephinum, at the by-God top of my class. Who’s got this round?”

– M. Arthur Lindenman, blogiste

  • Fr Eric

    Nice article. When preaching there is always someone in the pews who was either at the same post or knew a guy with whom he trained who crossed paths with the same cadre who trained me at post “sweet Jesus get me outta here.”

    However, anyone who passed his oral finals at the Pontifical College Josephinum under the eyes and ears of Fr. William Lynn SJ is ever much worth his salt as any SEAL. As we all know the greeting for each test “you bring the rope, I have the tree.”

  • Cindy K

    I’m rather perplexed that you honestly seem to believe that Catholic Priests are somehow ‘better’ than Non-Catholic Pastors.

    From where I’m standing, we’re all human, which means we’re all fallible, and we all sin. Pastors and non-clergy alike. No one is better than anyone else in that regard. We are all tempted by sin, and at one point or another we all fail that test.

    When I read the title of your post “Real Lessons from a Fake SEAL” I thought that I would be reading about human frailty. I thought perhaps your article would speak about how we can all learn a lesson from a good man who was tempted and failed the test. Instead you decided to write an article that seems to say “my way is better than you way! Naaaaah!!!”

    And I do not agree. But God bless you, and yours, and keep blogging!!

  • jkm

    Masterfully put, as usual, though I don’t envy you the can of combox vermisseaux you open with your references to a certain storyteller. I would like to think that at least one of the SEALs who carried out last week’s mission in Pakistan is now sitting around boasting, “Taking out Bin Laden? That was nothing! You try earning your STL magna cum laude from a Spanish Opus Dei university when you only speak New York restaurant Italian and the little bit of Polish you learned when John Paul ordained you!” ;-)

  • Maureen

    “No stercus, there I was….”

  • Max Lindenman

    Cindy: My point isn’t that any denomination has cornered the market on virtue. To claim that on behalf of the Catholic priesthood in light of recent developments would be pretty nutty, wouldn’t it?

    What I meant was, entrepreneurship can bring out the worst in people (although it doesn’t always). To stay competitive people will cut all kinds of corners. Hucksterism may not be the worst vice on earth, but it’s a vice — maybe the only vice — most Catholic priests have managed to avoid falling into, if only because it wouldn’t do them any real good.

    Keep reading, I beg you!

  • Cristina

    I read this article. I noticed how it mentioned twice that clergy were most likely to claim a past as a Navy SEAL, yet a second example of that happening was not provided. Then, a few friends of mine shared the article around Facebook to defame Christian pastors in general in a very fiery way. What bad journalism!

  • Fr. J.C.

    I am also a proud graduate of the Josephinum (Class of ’99). Being from Mexico, and now ministering in Arizona. I learned English, almost from scratch at the Josh. Not to re-invent my self (my Mexican Sonoran accent still resonates loud and strong).

    Thanks to Fr. William Lynn, SJ. I passed those oral exams (in English) to the best of my capacity (not to brag, but mostly “A”s.) Not bad, since I did have to study double to get those names pronounced correctly.

    I agree with the view on Bishop Olmsted (a man of God who in his simplicity is able to transmit his deep love for the Church). Definitely, though I was born in Mexico, I was re-born at my formative years at the Josephinum.

    Fr. J.C.

  • Max Lindenman

    Fr. J.C:

    I live in Phoenix. Are you serving there?

    You are no Ron, sir.

  • Bernadette

    I remember the first time I encountered a pathological liar. It had never occurred to me before that someone would lie about such basic things. Since then I’ve come to understand a little more the urge to be someone else, someone better or more interesting than who you really are. But it still makes me very sad. Did he really think that who he was in himself was so inadequate without the added cache of an elite military career? Though, come to think of it, one of the things that the man I knew lied about was his (lack of) military history too.

    Also, it’s really funny to see you reference the Josephinum – it’s just down the road from me, and I tend to think of it as that one seminary in Columbus. :) Familiarity and all that.